June 5, 10:15 pm
Michelle’s crying jags had seriously depleted her supply of Pil’s fast-food napkins. He had a tendency to stash napkins and plastic cutlery from fast-food places in the dashboard and pockets of their SUV with the fervor of a squirrel hoarding acorns.
She looked at her watch. It was after 10:00 pm, and she had been sitting in the driveway of their house for a good twenty minutes, hoping to let this round of tears pass before going in. After leaving Keith’s house less than an hour ago, she’d made a detour to a convenience store on South Temple to get some milk. It was only a few minutes back to her house, but after pulling into the driveway, she just turned off the engine and sat in the dark. The cold gallon of milk was gathering summer condensation on the passenger seat, next to the wadded up pile of napkins from Wendy’s and Burger King. But thankfully, her tears had stopped.
So if I’m done crying, why am I just sitting here? Why don’t I go inside?
She could see Pil’s outline through the curtained window of their living room, which now felt exposed to the street and dangerous in a way that it never had before. There was a sick feeling in her stomach that after Richard’s death, none of them would ever feel safe in their own homes again.
Salt Lake City, and especially the Avenues, had held on to a small-town, Norman Rockwell, Americana character far longer than most urban areas in the country. It still felt like a community, and she knew all her neighbors. But it was still part of a big city, and maybe she was naïve to have ever felt safe here at all.
No, that wasn’t it. She knew what was really bothering her was simple: She wasn’t with Keith.
Richard’s death had bonded them in ways that surpassed even their previous (arguably unhealthy) level of mutual attachment. And Michelle realized that this was the first entire waking hour she had been more than a dozen steps away from him since that night. Even when Detective Grayson had conducted their separate interviews, she’d sat outside the room, nervously twisting and folding a police brochure on sexual assault in her hands, until it looked like origami.
Three hours after the gun was fired, while the cops were still bustling over the crime scene, they had finally allowed Michelle to take Keith out of the chaos. Richard’s body was on the way to the morgue, and they had both declined the offer to speak with a counselor. Pil had arrived by then, so the three of them simply walked the two-and-a-half blocks back to Michelle and Pil’s house.
That night, after scalding hot showers, the three of them had huddled silently together in Michelle and Pil’s king-sized bed—Keith in shock and too numb to cry, but shivering and nestled between them like a child who had awoken from a nightmare and ran to mommy and daddy’s bed. Michelle left the bedroom TV on, tuned to reruns of Friends but with the sound turned too low to hear. The flickering images and the lack of a laugh track were surreal, but the moving colors on the wall provided them all a bit of comfort.
Very little passed between them in terms of conversation that night. And very little, if any, sleep. They just laid there, with Pil’s heavy arm across Keith’s chest, holding Michelle’s hand. Keith’s vacant eyes and his hands on Pil’s arms made him look like a little boy, peeking over the edge of a swimming pool.
They had all cried, but less than Michelle had expected. They had talked even less. She had thought they were all in various levels of shock and dreaded the moment when it would wear off.
Early the very next morning, a squad car had picked them up and taken them to the precinct house for the interviews with Detective Grayson. She interviewed them each separately, at first. But even then, Michelle had been sure to sit where she could easily get up to see Keith and the Detective through the little glass window in the interview room door. And while she was being interviewed, it comforted her to see Keith doing the same; standing on his tip-toes outside the door every few minutes to glimpse Michelle. He was just tall enough for his eyes to peek over the bottom of the little square window.
Both of them had needed to stay within sight of each other during those first few days. That need had been slow to fade, and she had to admit that Keith’s desire to stay at his own house tonight was probably harder on her than it was on him.
Okay, she thought. Time to shake this off. No more sitting in the car wadding up fast-food napkins and listening to Indigo Girls songs. She unplugged her phone and dropped it onto the passenger seat.
A police car zoomed down the street behind her, sirens blaring. That was not something they heard in the Avenues very often, and the sirens caused another wave of anxiety to break over her. How long would it be before she could hear a siren again without having a panic attack? She hoped it wouldn’t be too long, or living in this city would become a nightmare.
She could still see Pil’s outline, intently watching the TV. He leaned forward in his favorite chair, his huge, shaggy head making him look like a bear. Soon after they bought this house, she got him an oversized, industrial strength recliner. It was one of their first furniture purchases for their new home, but a necessary one. Normal sized chairs all made Pil look like he was sitting on doll furniture, and most of them were not rated for his weight.
She couldn’t see, but fully imagined, the care and worry on her husband’s face. And thinking about Pil was enough to make her pick up one of the least tattered napkins. She loved this man so much, and he had been nothing but kind and nurturing and incredibly strong during this entire experience; both for Keith, and for her. She didn’t know what she would ever do without him, the way that Keith was going to have to go on without Richard. She prayed that she’d never find out.
She looked at her phone. It was 10:20, and there were no unread messages or texts. That was a good sign and probably meant that Keith was still sleeping. But she couldn’t help but wish that his number would pop up on the caller ID. As guilty as she felt about it, she wanted him to call and ask her to come back. To say that he couldn’t stay alone by himself after all.
She threw the phone into her bag in disgust, knowing she hoped that for herself, and not for Keith. She was the weak one here. In fact, his strength was astounding to her. She could have never faced being alone in that house. Certainly not tonight, and probably never again.
He has always been strong, she mused with a sad smile. You don’t go through high school as a sensitive, chubby, gay, Asian boy in a state as white and conservative as Utah without developing a backbone.
Keith and Michelle became friends the year that Keith’s mother moved his family to Salt Lake City, from their home in Las Vegas. Keith’s father had died a couple years earlier, and he had been struggling in middle school there, and something about Utah made his mother think it would be a better environment for her son.
Both of them being drama kids and self-identified nerds, they bonded quickly when they found themselves in the same theater and debate classes. They soon discovered that they shared a ton of interests, and that perhaps the only major difference between them was their religious backgrounds, and the fact that Michelle was a year older. Keith was in eighth grade, and she was proud to finally be a freshman in what was technically high school. But in their small town of Heber, grades eight through twelve were all in the same school building.
Michelle was a good Mormon girl, from a devout, middle class home. Her father was an architect, and her mom a housewife. Keith was from a poorer home, with a single immigrant mother, and no particular religious preference. His mother cleaned rooms at the Best Western, and they lived in an apartment over the hardware store downtown.
At first, Michelle tried hard to convert Keith to Mormonism, with the fervor and the passion that you can only find in a thirteen-year-old girl. And although Keith listened and even read the copy of the Book of Mormon that she gave him, it just never really captured his imagination. Michelle would tease him constantly, saying that, “one day you’re going to marry a nice Mormon girl who will stay home all day and bake bread and give you lots of little Woo babies.” Keith would just laugh, and she often wondered if he suspected the nice Mormon girl she was thinking about was herself. But clearly, even then, he must have realized that no girl, Mormon or otherwise, was likely to be bearing his children.
Thankfully, by the time she was in the tenth grade, Michelle’s religious fervor had died down to a calm roar, and a good healthy sense of teen rebellion had settled in to take its place. Eventually, she accepted that they were both more interested in talking about musical theater, science fiction, and reality TV shows than they were interested in talking about the dry subject of religion.
In her Junior year, Michelle learned Keith was gay. He confided it to her in a strange way. One day, when he seemed especially emotionally distraught, he handed her his handwritten journal, with a bookmark stuck into a carefully chosen page. She read that day’s entry while he sat across the picnic table from her, nestled under a spreading cottonwood tree in Heber Park. And in those tear-stained pages, Keith confessed not only his sexuality, but also his desperate and lonely obsession with a boy two years older, who would leave at the end of the school year.
Michelle was shocked. At least, at first. But as she read, and as the words sank in, she realized that it all made perfect sense. It explained so much of what she’d seen in Keith; both his tendency to distract her from any romantic development in their friendship, and also the haunted way he often looked when they were with other kids, especially a few boys in his own class. The more she thought about it, the more she had to admit that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to her at all. It seemed she had been far more capable of denial than she realized.
She went through that entire range of emotions before she allowed herself to look up from the journal, and into her friend’s eyes. And then she smiled and took his hand. Before she could say a word, Keith burst into tears.
Years later, she couldn’t even remember what they said that day. But she remembered they talked for hours, and that Keith was so relieved he couldn’t stop crying. It was certainly the relief he felt in finally coming out to another human being, but he had also feared that with her religious background, his coming out might mean the end of their friendship. But her innate compassion had mellowed and tempered her religious fervor, and she assured him that there was no way she was going to let go of her best friend over something like this. As she told him, their interest in boys was just one more thing they had in common. By the time they left that park, tears still drying on their cheeks, Michelle realized that Keith’s coming out had actually brought them closer together.
They became even more inseparable through high school, and she was there for his coming out to his mother, which he did later in his junior year, and then to a few other close theater friends in high school, when he was a senior. By that time, Michelle was no longer in school. She had graduated his junior year.
The year they were no longer in school together was a difficult one for her. Not only did she miss the daily contact with Keith, but it was also the year that the Mormon church, in its questionable wisdom, made all young girls wait.
For her entire life Michelle had wanted one thing above all others, and that was to serve a mission, the way her father had, and the way her brother had done three years earlier. Boys could serve a mission at eighteen, but for girls, the church wouldn’t consider a missionary application before age nineteen. That meant a lot of boys came right out of high school and were on their missions just months later. But for girls, it meant a year of twiddling her thumbs. It was widely assumed that the year was intended to give most girls (or what the church hoped would be most girls) a chance to find a husband and change their minds. The Church definitely would rather see their young women married than serving on missions, which was still widely considered the province of men.
That year of waiting seemed interminable to Michelle. The mission felt like an important rite of passage, and she knew it would deepen her faith to spend a year in such a religious pursuit. Plus, it provided an opportunity to see a new part of the world. As a missionary, you never knew where they would send you, and she hoped for somewhere exotic like China or India.
Finally, shortly before Keith graduated, Michelle had her dream fulfilled. She was thrilled to find out that she had been selected to serve a two-year mission in Hawaii. Perhaps not as exotic as she had hoped, but she was still excited beyond words. It would mean two years away from her family, and to her, that meant two years to find out who she was, and what would be next for her. She craved the structure and the intensely personal communion with God that the mission would provide.
She shared the news with Keith in a tearful conversation that very evening. He knew it was important when she picked him up, and drove them both to the city park where they could sit under the same tree where he had come out to her years before.
He was excited for her too, until she told him she would leave within days of his high school graduation. They had hated being separated during his senior year, and now they would be apart two more, with very little time in between to spend together. And tearfully, Keith shared his fear that after her mission, she would come back a different person, and have no time for him. Or worse, she’d decide that her destiny lay elsewhere, and she’d leave him behind completely. Crying in each other’s arms, she assured him that such a thing could never happen. And he promised her, jokingly, that he wouldn’t fall in love with a traveling salesman and disappear while she was gone.
She left eight days after his high school graduation. She promised to write often, and be back at the end of her two-year assignment.
But as it worked out, she was gone far less than the two years she had planned.
They corresponded almost daily during that summer and fall—her in Hawaii and him eventually starting classes at the University, pursuing an English literature degree—through e-mail, and even video chat, which made it seem almost like they were still in the same room. Even though that kind of communication with home was officially forbidden, Michelle was lucky enough to be assigned a mission companion who thought the church’s stodgy rules were as outdated as Michelle did, and she kindly looked the other way.
So despite the distance, Keith had a front-row seat to watch Michelle fall in love.
Michelle and Pil met during her first year on the islands. Pil was working as a performer in the Maori show at the visitor’s center of the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was run by the Mormon church. The PCC was in Laia, on the northern shore of Oahu. And although the stated purpose of the PCC was to “share with the world the cultures, diversity, and spirit of the nations of Polynesia.” Michelle knew it was also an evangelical hub where the church could reach visitors from all over the world. Exposure such as this was the name of the game for missionaries, so there were always a great number working there at the PCC.
Missionaries were housed at the Brigham Young University campus just outside the PCC, and Michelle soon found herself assigned to extended blocks of time working at the Cultural Center. She didn’t mind. It had a Disneyland like quality to it and provided her an excellent venue to interact with both locals and tourists from all over the world.
She met her future husband just three months after arriving in Hawaii.
Pil was a huge, native Maori guy from New Zealand, that emigrated to Hawaii with his family when he was fourteen years old. Then twenty, he had grown into a terrifyingly large and striking figure, with arms and shoulders like slabs of beef, almost full-body tattoos, and the long curly hair worn by many Maori tribesmen. Although it was never his intent, he intimidated everyone who saw him for the first time. But they would universally be in love with him five minutes later, when that imposing face would crack into a smile, and the light would dance in his eyes.
Pil loved his native culture, but he was also intellectually curious and widely read. He could talk for hours about how traditional Polynesian culture compared and contrasted with modernity and the west. He was the kind of guy that could wow you with a traditional folk song one minute and then explain the cultural significance of that song the next. In other words, he was the perfect, articulate, and striking figure that the Mormons wanted to put on display at the Polynesian Cultural Center. In the traditional Hakka dance, when Pil would stamp his feet, pound his tattooed chest, and make his war face, tourists from around the world snapped pictures and took an involuntary step back.
Behind the scenes, Pil was everybody’s best friend at the Center, and Michelle learned quickly that nearly everyone who met him would eventually want to be either his drinking buddy, or marry him. And she was amused to see both reactions in both men and women over her months at the Center. Soon, she sought him out on each shift so they could eat lunch together. The rules of her mission officially forbid such a thing, but once again, her companion somehow understood that there would be no stopping Michelle’s interest in the big man, and she looked the other way.
The forbidden nature of it all proved intoxicating for Michelle. And after a wild courtship and a reckless decision, they agreed Michelle would bail on her mission, and they would return to Salt Lake City to be married.
Leaving a mission was almost unheard of, and the decision was not an easy one. But she knew that her entire life trajectory had changed when she and Pil fell in love. She wanted to begin a life with him, and she didn’t want to waste another minute. Pil, for his part, was ready to make a new life as well. He had fallen head over heels for this blond woman from Utah.
Pil and his family had converted to Mormonism when he was a teenager, and his religious fervor reminded Michelle of her own in high school. Pil was fully ready to return with Michelle to the sacred heart of Mormondom.
Keith had a front-row seat to all of this, both through e-mail and their occasional video chats. Needless to say, he was thrilled that she was coming home early, but he also feared that her marriage would mean an end to the special relationship the two of them had shared for the past six years. She guaranteed Keith that Pil was “no traveling salesman,” and she wasn’t about to disappear on him.
As it ended up, neither of them had anything to worry about. The scene at the airport, when Pil stooped down to walk through the jetway door, was one she’d never forget. Keith was waiting there, along with her parents. All three had signs and balloons welcoming her home. She was proud of her parents for not succumbing to the disappointment of her failed mission, and instead just being glad to see her again after nearly eighteen months.
The eyes of her parents and Keith got wider and wider as Michelle and Pil approached, until she thought they’d pop. With the other airline passengers gawking at them, Pil sank to one knee, reached out his huge paw, and took the hand of Michelle’s mother. He turned on that radiant smile that lit up the room, while Michelle introduced them. Michelle saw her parents’ eyes melt in his glow, and she knew it would all be okay.
Of course, she’d also told Pil all about Keith, and she was even more nervous for the two of them to meet. But after shaking the hands of Michelle’s parents, Pil turned his glow on Keith.
“And you must be Keith. Michelle can’t stop talking about you,” he said with a grin. He put out his hand to Keith, and Keith reached up to take it. Michelle couldn’t help but think how small Keith’s hand looked in the big man’s paw. It was like a giant shaking the hand of a tiny forest creature. And she was amazed at how gentle and sweet that handshake was. Keith held the big man’s hand for just a moment, and then relaxed his grip. But Pil didn’t. He gently pulled Keith into a hug, and even with Pil down on one knee, the big man was still an inch taller than her friend.
That hug was brief, but when Pil relaxed his grip and turned back to Michelle’s parents, Keith’s eyes met Michelle’s. He looked intoxicated, like he’d just taken a long hit off one of the joints that they’d passed around at parties back in high school. Michelle could see in Keith’s eyes that he was moonstruck, and she couldn’t help but laugh. She knew that these two men were going to be incredibly close. Knowing this made her heart sing.
In the years that followed, the three fell into an easy, seasoned intimacy that became the foundation of her world. Even though she was married to Pil and lived with him, both Pil and Keith were now “her boys.”
Michelle and Pil were married in the Salt Lake Temple, in a ceremony that further soothed the ruffled feathers of her family. To their credit, they also quickly fell in love with the huge man that Michelle towed back from Hawaii, and they had been hugely devoted to him, and to them, ever since. Although they lived up in Ogden now, enjoying their early retirement, Michelle and Pil would often drive up there for dinners. And her parents quickly came to accept that they would often have Keith in tow.
Sometimes even Keith and Richard, Michelle thought, although that was over now.
Revisiting these memories helped to blow away the clouds of Michelle’s sadness, as she sat in the car, looking at Pil’s silhouette against the curtains. And it gave her the strength to finally grab the wet plastic jug of milk and go back into her home.
She expected to be greeted with one of Pil’s signature bear hugs and hoped that the long and desperately needed intimacy wouldn’t be far behind. But when she entered the house, Pil didn’t get up from his chair. His eyes were glued to the television screen. She immediately sensed that something horrible had happened, and was afraid to ask, not sure if her heart could take more bad news.
She sat the milk down on the table next to Pil, and he reached up to take her hand. But he didn’t turn down the sound on the TV, and his eyes never left the screen. She looked at him and saw his face was drawn.
On the TV was Morgan Jensen, a reporter with KUTV news. Behind her, police cars and ambulances visible in a vast parking lot, their lights creating a surreal strobe effect on a crowd that radiated terror.
She saw the logo of the Valley Fair Mall on the sign in the distance.
Pil said, “Something horrible has happened.”
Michelle sank down onto his knee, and he pulled her back into his lap, enfolding her in his thick arms.
The reporter cut to a blood covered young girl weeping. She was talking about how her best friend had died as she watched.
“Her boyfriend got her out,” the girl was saying. “But she didn’t make it. She died…” Michelle could see the girl looking past the camera, at what she knew must be her friend’s dead body, there in the parking lot.
“My god, what is happening?” Michelle said, but it wasn’t really a question.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.